Around this time six years ago I was in Hyderabad in India getting to grips with moratoria. Back then conversations revolved around geoengineering – techniques to reduce global warming by intervening in the Earth’s climate system – and whether a ban on geoengineering research should be adopted by the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (UN CBD).
Fast forward to 2018 and a similar debate has arisen, and with it a distinct sense of déjà vu. Once again, it’s about moratoria and the UN CBD. But this time it’s about gene drives – another new technology with similarly high levels of potential risk and benefit and therefore controversy.
The rise of gene drives
Gene drives are systems that increase the likelihood of inheriting a particular DNA sequence, allowing that sequence to spread or “drive” more rapidly through a population. They occur naturally but scientists are now exploring the potential for developing synthetic gene drives. These are being developed with a range of purposes in mind – from eradicating malaria and other vector-borne diseases to controlling animals that act as invasive species or agricultural pests.
Gene drives have been attracting attention in the scientific world for several years, with the US National Academy of Sciences publishing Gene Drives on the Horizon a couple of years ago. As for the UN CBD, debates about synthetic biology in general and gene drives in particular have been bubbling since the Hyderabad meeting in 2012. And over the next two weeks, in Sharm El Sheikh in Egypt, those debates will come to a head with countries negotiating whether they should “[refrain from] the release, including experimental release, of organisms containing engineered gene drives” (PDF) – in other words, whether they should adopt an international moratorium.
Dealing with new technologies
The Royal Society has tended to engage most actively with the UN CBD where negotiations are at risk of being poorly informed by the current best evidence, or where the conduct of scientific research is at stake.
In many cases, those calling for moratoria have focused on what they consider to be new and inherently risky scientific techniques (whether geoengineering or gene drives), rather than on the outcomes of those techniques. And in many cases, objections have become enmeshed with much wider concerns about how the techniques might be used, for what purposes, by whom and for whose benefit – a theme that also emerged during our UK public dialogue on genetic technologies.
While concerns about the wider systems within which technologies exist are entirely valid, prohibiting research into those technologies is not the answer. Saying “let’s hold off until we know more”, and then stifling the one thing – research – that will allow us to know more, starts to feel rather circular.
When it comes to gene drives, the Society believes that further research will help us to better understand both their potential risks and benefits – and that research should be accompanied by public debate about the relative merits of using gene drives compared to alternative social, economic or technological solutions. And for that reason it’s a “no” to a moratorium.
A critical few weeks
This position is laid out more fully in our newly published statement and myth-busting Q&A, which includes questions about the wider ecological consequences of gene drives and whether they could ever wipe out an entire species. We’ll also have the opportunity to discuss gene drives, and synthetic biology more broadly, with UN CBD delegates out in Sharm El Sheikh, where we’ll be hosting a side event with the Wellcome Trust and African Academy of Sciences (PDF).
Back in Hyderabad in 2012 a moratorium on geoengineering research was thankfully averted. Let’s hope Sharm El Sheikh leads to the same outcome, and to déjà vu for all the right reasons.